Reader response to my last column supporting Seattle’s proposed tax on soda pop was mixed, though many of you complained about lost freedoms. Here’s the thing: promoting good health is a legitimate government function. And few freedoms in a democracy are absolute.
Lost freedom was a common theme among readers who disagreed with Thursday’s column in which I supported Seattle’s consideration of a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks.
Seattle is studying a tax that would be paid by the distributors of sugar-sweetened drinks. Those distributors would likely pass some or all of the tax, 1.5 cents per ounce, on to retailers, who would mostly pass it on to consumers. Diet drinks were added in an early revision.
The idea is that some consumers might opt for healthier choices, and that the tax money the city collects will fund projects that would benefit underserved children.
David wrote, “What gives government the right to tell us what to eat, what to drink, what to think …?
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“People have come to this place from all over the world for centuries seeking what they had lost in their home countries: Freedom.
“When is enough?”
David, we elect governments to govern — to make decisions and take actions that benefit the community — and we get to vote for or against representatives based on what the majority of us want them to do. It’s an imperfect system, for sure, but better than most of the alternatives.
People come to this country for a variety of reasons, and freedom is one for many. But so is the sense of order that effective government provides, often by restricting some freedoms to achieve other goals, like regulating the business environment, or controlling roadway mayhem by putting limits on speed or drinking, or cellphone use.
Some people think government goes too far, like Howard, a frequent critic of my work:
“This is standard government overreach for the purpose of revenue collection to provide income redistribution. Government feels that because we’re providing and assisting with your health care, they now have the right to dictate your lifestyle?
“Whether it be healthy or not is no one’s business, but it’s about power and control and anyone that goes along with this will be the perfect slave in the up and coming global order control.
“We’re becoming a feminized nation of sheep.”
Howard makes me think we need to raise taxes so that we can provide better education for all of our citizens. His point, aside from an opportunity to offend most of the human race and an uninvolved group of animals, is that government and the global order are trying to keep people from exercising their freedom to choose to drink what they wish, and do what they will to their health.
Yes, the tax would raise revenue, but not for income redistribution.
I believe government has a legitimate interest in the health of citizens, partly because of the societal costs of preventable diseases. A couple of readers said they were surprised I’d support a tax that would disproportionately burden low-income people. I generally don’t like regressive taxes, but the potential benefit (encouraging healthier behavior) carries greater weight for me than the financial impact on people who choose to buy anyway. Everyone still has the freedom to choose — there would only be absolute freedom if the stuff was absolutely free.
Gary liked the column and said he can’t understand why some people raise a fuss about a tax on soda since we often tax products that aren’t necessary and may cause harm, such as alcohol or cigarettes.
He concluded his email with this suggestion: “So let’s make it simple and classify not only soda pop, but the other junk foods as what it is: luxury goods. And let’s tax it accordingly. At least we will be philosophically consistent, and frankly, morally correct.”
Several people suggested imposing a “sin tax” on all junk foods. I agree with that if there were a practical way to do that, and if the money was collected for a social good, like education or health care.
I grew up drinking pop and Tang and Kool-Aid. I’ve had an affinity for Dr Pepper since I was a kid working with my Uncle Will, and we’d take a break from doing yardwork, find a shady spot and have a pop.
But as I learned about the growing body of research on the negative effects of sodas, I chose other drinks: water or tea or coffee, usually. Sometimes when the choices are limited, I’ll still have a soda, just not very often.
It’s easy for me to support the tax. But I also think the arguments in favor of it outweigh those against it. And maybe a few more people will retain the freedom that comes from not having to spend hours connected to a dialysis machine.